Like most couples, Doug and Cynthia were excited about retiring, and were able to do it within six months of each other. Doug had been in a job that required constant travel for over 20 years. Cynthia was a bookkeeper at a local business.
Both looked forward to the opportunity to ﬁnally have time to spend together. Cynthia was especially excited to travel the world and to volunteer in her community. Doug was eager to relax, spend more time with their grandchildren, and pursue his hobbies.
Over the years their ﬁnancial advisor helped them develop a clear ﬁnancial plan for retirement and they felt fortunate to have enough money to live out their dreams. However, the closer retirement came to be being reality, the more nervous both of them felt. Neither of them could pinpoint where these anxious feelings were coming from, so they did not talk about it.
Jump ahead two years and we ﬁnd that Doug and Cynthia are not in a good place in their relationship. They ﬁnd themselves bickering. They added onto their house and discovered each now has their own space and while they live together, they are doing so separately. Doug in his section, Cynthia in hers.
During his working years, Doug was never home except on the weekends. Now that he is retired, Cynthia feels like he is invading her space! Cynthia, on the other hand, is still eager to see the world. But Doug does not want to spend money on travel. He worked hard to save the money and had forgone "wants" for "needs" during his working years. The idea of spending money on "wants," even if planned for in retirement, is a change in mindset he's reluctant to make.
So what's happened? Have their priorities, goals, or values changed? Or is it something else? It is hard to tell without digging deeper into how both Doug and Cynthia are emotionally coping with retirement; how they are adapting to learning to live with one another again; how they are handling conﬂict and communication within the relationship; how they are maintaining trust in the relationship; or how retirement has changed their pre-conceived expectations of what they want retirement to look like and what is reality. Their conﬂict likely is linked to all of these.
The Role of an Advisor
This story is based on real people, although names and a few details have been changed. I suspect Doug and Cynthia sound similar to one or more of your clients.
Have you been in situations where your married and retired clients shared with you that they are having issues now that both spouses are at home for the ﬁrst time? Have you been asked for advice on how one should transition from saving to spending mode in retirement? Your "couple" clients might have been on the same page in terms of planning and saving, but do they have diﬀerent opinions on what to do post-retirement?
Research tells us the most common type of retirement transition for couples is for both spouses to transition around the same time from working full-time to not working at all (Curl & Townsend, 2008). As a ﬁnancial planner, you likely have helped couples like Doug and Cynthia reach what I'll call "retirement capability" (that is, having the ﬁnancial means and ability to accomplish retirement goals). Now, how do you get them to carry out and implement what they have worked long and hard to accomplish?
We know that the transition to retirement isn't just about being ﬁnancially prepared; it is a complicated process that impacts multiple areas of one's life. The good news is that marital quality can be impacted but will likely remain stable. A research study by Dew and Yorgason (2010) compared three groups of older couples: (a) those already retired, (b) those transitioning to retirement, and (c) those preparing for retirement. They found that marital quality tended to stay stable into retirement (i.e., low marital quality before retirement would likely remain low in retirement and high marital quality pre-retirement would remain high in retirement).
However, those couples who were already retired, were more satisﬁed than those who were transitioning into retirement or preparing for retirement. The authors suggested that these diﬀerences among groups could be because the retired group had time to adapt to the ﬁnancial and relational transitions that can occur. This means that a transition does happen, but couples apparently are able to adapt, given relational dynamics and coping mechanisms.
Your role is simply to help them ﬁnd their way.
Some Strategies for Advisors
All couples entering retirement go through a transition period. Some couples may adjust easily; other couples may have a more difficult time, especially if they have retirement anxiety, low conﬁdence in their ability to adapt to retirement individually and as a couple (van Solage & Henkens, 2005). Just because a client is retirement capable, does not mean they will adapt to retirement easily. Adding a relationship expert as part of your meetings with pre-retired clients might help couples transition to retirement more easily.
Although not prevalent, clients' expectations in retirement can change, impacting both partners. Similar to unexpected health concerns or ﬁnancial issues, a misalignment can happen between a spouse's expectations of what they thought retirement was going to look like and what it actually looks like. In our example, Doug no longer wants to travel and he is having trouble shifting his mindset to spend money on "wants" like leisure travel, leaving Cynthia disappointed, resentful, and depressed. Cynthia may start to blame Doug for her feelings and not helping to realize her goals. Again, a relationship expert may be helpful to bring in as a consultant or to make a referral.
Depending on your skill set and relationship with the couple, there are some speciﬁc things you can do or say as their advisor to help a couple that is having difficulty transitioning to retirement.
First, you must diffuse the spousal emotion. One way to do this is to help them think once more about the positive aspects of their relationship. Ask about their relationship. How did they meet? What attracted them to each other? What are their common interests? What do they enjoy or have enjoyed doing together over the course of their relationship?
Then, assign them the task of doing one or more of those shared activities that they enjoy doing together. When they can spend time together doing something they both enjoy, it may be one small step toward reconnecting and getting back on the same page.
Now, if serving in this role frightens you, then consult or refer to a relationship expert. In the long run, your couple clients who are having a difficult time adjusting to retirement will likely be thankful.
- Most couples do go through a transition pre- and post-retirement. Sometimes the couple can ﬁnd themselves with diﬀerent expectations as compared to retirement reality, especially around spending money since they no longer have a regular income.
- For the most part, couples manage through the transition and end up in the same place in their relationship. In the situations where there's conﬂict, your best bet is to connect them to a relationship expert.
- Some steps you can take to help include ﬁnding a relationship expert, helping reduce spousal emotions by reminding them what makes them a couple, or tasking them with doing something together they both enjoy.
Curl, A. L., & Townsend, A. L. (2008). Retirement transitions among married couples. Journal of workplace behavioral health, 23(1-2), 89-107.
Dew, J., & Yorgason, J. (2010). Economic pressure and marital conﬂict in retirement-aged couples. Journal of Family Issues, 31(2), 164-188.
Van Solinge, H., & Henkens, K. (2005). Couples' adjustment to retirement: A multi-actor panel study. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 60(1), S11-S20.
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